Shostakovich Meets A Companionable Tree Frog

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss, Shostakovich: Luba Orgonášová (soprano), Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 5.7.2013 (MSJ)

R. Strauss: Four Last Songs
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor

I love the Cleveland Orchestra’s main home, Severance Hall, dearly. Most music sounds at least good there, and some sounds great, especially where lucidity and warmth are most needed. But if ever there were a composer destined to sound his best at the orchestra’s summer home at Blossom Music Center—25 miles south of Cleveland in the rolling hills near Cuyahoga Falls—it is Shostakovich. Thursday evening, the orchestra opened their summer festival season under music director Franz Welser-Möst in an outstanding performance of Shostakovich’s wartime masterpiece, the Symphony No. 8 in C minor, and the Blossom Pavilion’s acoustics gave an epic cast that dear Severance Hall simply never could.

Welser-Möst is a restrained conductor, and sometimes that leaves expansive composers such as Mahler under-inflected. Yet oddly enough, the wide-ranging Mahlerian symphonies of Shostakovich have proven over the years to be one of the conductor’s strong suits. If Welser-Möst’s approach to Shostakovich is refined—more western than eastern—the conductor nonetheless stands out over most of his contemporaries in unflinchingly plumbing the dark depths.

The twenty-five minute long first movement was astonishingly concentrated, patiently yet relentlessly building up to the harrowing, climactic orchestral howls (which return later). Not even a vigorously chirping tree frog somewhere in the pavilion could keep away the spell. And full credit to Welser-Möst, because few other performances I’ve heard can compare, including the downtown performance of this orchestra about 20 years ago under Vladimir Ashkenazy. The soft parts had hushed, broken loneliness, while the full-orchestra roars inspired awe.

The two scherzos built up further tension with Welser-Möst’s steady hand on the tiller. Detail was clearly sorted out without being spotlit, and nothing was allowed to undermine the increasingly frenetic mechanical energy. The second scherzo—the third movement—is treacherous and can easily jump the rails if the playing isn’t kept crisp, and sometimes conductors push the tempo so fast that the players can’t possibly keep up, particularly when the trombone section takes over the movement’s arpeggiated theme. But here Welser-Möst chose his pace shrewdly—fast enough to catch the sense of danger this music demands, yet just slow enough to keep it from getting bogged down and losing its edge. Another onslaught of orchestral sound—brutal waves—crashed onto the rocks of the opening of the Largo, the dark heart. Again, Welser-Möst didn’t try to milk for pathos, but allowed plenty of space as the passacaglia bass line repeated beneath tragic fragments of melody. When the flutter-tongued flutes came in, it suddenly seemed like a link with that tree frog that had been chirping earlier. Now, it seemed, even it had become speechless.

After this long, dark night, the finale began its half-hearted attempt to “get back to normal,” but Welser-Möst emphasized the interrupting, unsettling intrusions that keep it from gelling into a happy ending. This fueled the build-up of tension, resulting in the last and most upsetting wave of battering orchestral climaxes. Afterward, instruments and sections resumed one by one, uncertainly trying to reassemble the already fragile and skittish main theme, as if nothing devastating had just happened. Failing this, the work quickly subsided into its blank, shell-shocked coda. I would have liked if Welser-Möst had paced this calm section a little more broadly, but his point in keeping it moving seemed to emphasize the music’s frailty; it needs to say its goodbye quickly, before it falls apart completely. Regardless of speed, it is a subdued and sobering ending.

With his busy international schedule, Welser-Möst only spends a handful of weeks with this orchestra every year. But a performance like this proves that he is still imprinting his approach and style irrefutably on the Clevelanders. I can only look forward to the fall mini-festival of Shostakovich and Beethoven with great anticipation.

The Richard Strauss Four Last Songs which opened the concert were beautiful, if not in the same league. Welser-Möst was competing with himself here, thanks to warm recollections of about a decade ago at Severance with Felicity Lott. At the close of an introductory performance of Death and Transfiguration, Lott wandered out onstage just in time to arrive in place and start singing the Four Last Songs, which the conductor started without pause. Here, there was no lead-in, and the soprano was not the airy Lott but the rich-voiced Luba Orgonášová, who has a richer, creamier voice. But Lott soared aloft, whereas Orgonášová never took flight; her opening phrase was so subdued, she was barely audible above the orchestra. Perhaps her more statuesque, less flexible approach would work better with a conductor balancing her with more sentiment, but with Welser-Möst’s lithe, straightforward gentility, the essential spark never caught flame. And Strauss’s sumptuous orchestration displayed more color in Severance, whereas it turned rather diffuse at Blossom.

But on the strength of the harrowing Shostakovich, the concert was a triumphant way to open the Cleveland Orchestra’s summer season.

Mark Sebastian Jordan